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The only motion picture the Marx Brothers made for RKO Studios has the distinction of also being the only film they made that was not originally created for them. Their earliest work at Paramount, The Cocoanuts (1929) and Animal Crackers (1930), were based on their hit Broadway shows. Their next five pictures were written for the screen specifically for them. Room Service (1938), however, was taken from a popular Broadway farce by Allen Boretz and John Murray and adapted for film by Morrie Ryskind, himself a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and the man who penned three other Marx Brothers comedies.
The more purist fans of the zany quartet (by this time a trio, after the departure of Zeppo) find this outing a little disappointing. After all, Harpo doesn't play harp, Chico doesn't play piano, and there is only one song and no Margaret Dumont. But the brothers are still in rare form. The story finds Groucho, Chico and Harpo holed up in a hotel, waiting for financing for a new Broadway show they're trying to produce. The room, already packed with members of the cast, fills up with each new arrival as the boys struggle to buy time and avoid eviction.
Because the original play was such a hit, Ryskind was under orders from RKO not to change too much. In fact, the most significant alteration was the removal of the word "God" from the stage script. The play Groucho (in the role of producer Gordon Miller) is sponsoring is called Hail and Farewell instead of Godspeed, and, in keeping with the motion picture code of the time, even the mildest expletives were toned down. But the Marx Brothers-inspired lunacy breaks through even the most restrictive conventions, as when Groucho moves with his trademark loping walk across the hotel lobby or Chico responds with characteristic bluntness to a man asking for time to wash up: "The rest of us are washed up already." Harpo, typically mute in what was a minor speaking part in the play, contributes his brand of whirlwind pantomime in dining scenes as a man with an impossibly ravenous appetite. In other words, although it was the first box office disappointment for the boys, it's still the Marx Brothers, and that's always worth several viewings to catch everything that's going on.
Room Service is also worth catching for an early performance by a future comedy legend - Lucille Ball. Then a contract player for RKO, Ball had made a minor name for herself as a second-string player in films like Stage Door (1937), which was also adapted by Ryskind from a hit play. Although you can't tell from their screen time together, Ball didn't like the Marx Brothers very much, according to her biographer Kathleen Brady. Maybe she just didn't appreciate their anarchistic backstage antics. One day the brothers learned there were to be visitors to what they had requested should be a closed set, so they planned a vengeful antic. The scene scheduled for shooting called for Lucy to run into a room, close the door, and keep going, with the Marx Brothers in hot pursuit. But the trio stripped, burst through the door and pursued her in the nude, shocking the visitors, who just happened to be priests and nuns.
The only Marx Brother Ball liked was Harpo, who she considered a gentleman and far less manic than the others in private. Years later, when she was a major television star of the 1950s and the brothers' film career had ended, Harpo was a guest on I Love Lucy. Dressed identically in the Harpo character costume, the two performed a mirror routine that has become almost as famous as the one Harpo and Groucho immortalized 20 years earlier in the cult classic, Duck Soup (1933).
Director: William A. Seiter
Producer: Pandro S. Berman
Screenplay: Morrie Ryskind
Cinematography: J. Roy Hunt
Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase, Al Herman
Music: Roy Webb
Cast: Groucho Marx (Gordon Miller), Chico Marx (Harry Binelli), Harper Marx (Faker Englund), Lucille Ball (Christine), Ann Miller (Hilda Manney), Frank Albertson (Leo Davis).
BW-79m. Closed Captioning.
by Rob Nixon